Many major companies have still not fully acknowledged the challenge of sustainability or fully embraced more environmentally friendly strategies and practices. Within a large number of global corporations, there are barriers to the adoption of sustainable business practices at a brand and category management level.

While CEOs have often shown leadership on the issue of sustainability, and set ambitious goals, the vision has not necessarily trickled down to the rest of the organization. To be able to execute sustainability targets set by the CEO, sustainability has to be core to the organization’s value and brands. Marketers must make the CEO’s vision a reality.

Why? Because the purpose of marketing is to invent the future. If we want to create a positive future, we need people to think and behave differently.

Research from the World Economic Forum has shown that while some brand and marketing managers assume this responsibility, most do not. This is because marketers have significant internal tensions to overcome before they can focus on sustainability. Although 72% of marketing managers are aware of sustainability issues and their own company’s sustainability plans and commitments, only 19% use innovative techniques to encourage sustainable choices by consumers.

There are, however, examples of companies that have put sustainability at the centre of their marketing.

One of those companies using creative marketing to put sustainability on the agenda is Patagonia, a privately owned company making outdoor apparel and gear. Patagonia markets through non-traditional adverts that draw customer attention. One of the most talked about was the Don’t buy this jacket ad, which spurred more buying, but of a sustainable “built-to-last” product. Patagonia’s products are known for their durability, so when customers do buy a Patagonia product, such as the jacket, they know they can use it for a long time. They can also repair, reuse or recycle the product through the company’s Common Threads Partnership and reduce their environmental footprint. This method of nudging customers towards more sustainable products and driving business results is exactly what more marketers have to replicate.

Another example is gDiapers, which combines product redesign and consumer engagement through social networks to drive sales growth. It has a sustainable cradle-to-cradle product – its nappy inserts can be composted – and uses non-traditional marketing channels to sell its product. It has an intensely loyal following of mums over social media, and the connection with brand evangelists solidifies customer loyalty for new customers.

Right now, marketers see sustainability as someone else’s responsibility. Similarly, they think planning and executing sustainable strategies will add cost and undermine brand value. Most marketers are driven mainly by their balance sheet and profitability, and 78% of them feel consumer demand rather than marketing departments will drive sustainability across their organizations. So we need to determine how to get not just marketers, but also consumers, engaged.

There are regional differences when marketers talk about the barriers to implementing marketing programmes with a focus on sustainability. In Europe, 40% of marketers feel that margins would suffer; in Asia, 53% believe there is a lack of consumer interest at the point of purchase. In North America and Latin America, between 41-47% of marketers feel that performance indicators are not linked to sustainability, so there is no incentive to embed sustainability into marketing programmes.

Marketers have the power to change consumer attitudes and behaviour related to sustainability. They can demonstrate to consumers that cost savings can be made by choosing sustainable products and services. Consumer education is an important part of increasing the uptake of sustainable products. Marketers can highlight the importance of sustainable consumption and communicate the sustainability attributes of the products and services they market.

In the words of a marketer from North America: “Sustainability is managing the triple bottom line – a process by which firms manage their financial, social and environmental risks, obligations and opportunities. These three impacts are sometimes referred to as profits, people and planet.” Marketers do understand the vision of a sustainable future. They now have to translate the vision into meaningful action.

Author: Mayuri Ghosh, Senior Project Manager, Consumer Industries and Global Leadership Fellow, World Economic Forum

The new Positive Change Effie Award was announced on Earth Day, 22-April, 2014, with collaboration from the World Economic Forum’s Engaging Tomorrow’s Consumer project 

Image: A woman carries shopping bags on Oxford Street in London, December 13, 2011. REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly